A Thermodynamic Interpretation of History
CHAPTER 6.B.: The Origin of Women's Oppression (Part 2)

The Origin of Patriarchy in the Eastern Ecumene (China) : 1
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2005 by Lawrence C. Chin.

1. The breakdown of the cultural feminist concept of patriarchy

China from the time of Sung dynasty onwards to the first half of the twentieth century must have ranked as the most “patriarchal,” as the society most oppressive of women, of all time. It is hard to imagine how women can suffer worse than had Chinese women during this millennium. More than the lack of rights what maintains their status as virtual slaves is the constant physical pain and life-long disability caused by a singular physical act of footbinding, the practice of which started in the tenth century among the aristocracies but then spread to the peasant masses, eventually affecting the entire female population of the main Chinese ethnic divisions (e.g. the Hans). As John King Fairbank describes it:

In the old China women were first of all the product and the property of their families. Until well into the present century their subjection was demonstrated and reinforced by the custom of footbinding….

The first thing to note about footbinding is that the feet did not cease to grow. They were simply made to grow into a deformed shape. Imagine yourself a girl child who – for some six to ten years, beginning at age 5 to 8 and lasting until 13 or 15, the years of your childhood and getting your growth – has her feet always bound in long strips of binding cloth night and day with no letup in order to deform them into 3-inch-long “golden lilies.” To make your feet thinner under the constant pressure, your four minor toes on each foot are pushed down around and under the balls of your feet. If you tried to walk in a normal way, you would be putting your weight on your toe bones under your feet. Fortunately, however, you cannot do this because in the meantime in order to make your feet shorter the binding cloths have compressed them from front to back. Under this constant pressure your arches have gradually been broken and bowed upward so only the back edge of your heels can support your weight. As the arch is gradually broken, the flat of your heels and the balls of your foot (or plantar) are gradually moved from horizontal to perpendicular, facing each other, so that an object like a silver dollar can be inserted in the narrow space between them. The result is that you will never run again and can walk on the base of your heels only with difficulty. Even standing will be uncomfortable. After your feet have stopped growing the pain will be gone, but you will continue to wear your binding cloths partly to give your feet support, and partly because they are unlovely objects, horribly misshapen and ugly to look at. You let no one see them unshod.

This self-inflicted and inexorable pain in your formative years is welcomed in theory as a way to get a good marriage that may help your family with a fine bride price. Marriage brokers stressed the importance of foot size. Your mother went through it all and helps you do the same. She teaches you the art of not blocking circulation lest it produce gangrene and pus, of keeping your bent-under toenails manicured so they will not puncture your skin, of changing the binding daily to keep the pressure even, of washing to reduce the smell, massaging your legs to reduce the pain, and wearing cute little shoes to advertise your achievement and entice male attention. As you go into marriage hoping to produce a male baby, you find your life confined largely to household duties. If you happen to be a servant standing before your bound-foot mistress, she may let you lean against the wall to reduce the discomfort of standing. In a very literal sense you cannot run away. Among other things, your unused leg muscles have atrophied and your legs become ungainly spindles.

Missionaries in the 1880s estimated from what they had heard that about 10 percent of the girls who underwent footbinding did not survive it… [T]here is evidence that girls during the first years of footbinding had trouble sleeping… Some placed their feet at night beneath their mother or rested them on a bedboard, in either case to dull the pain by making their feet numb from lack of blood circulation...

In the end could a bound-foot woman feel anything but inferior? a victim of remorseless fate? fearful of breaking convention? The trauma, conscious or unconscious, must have become part of the personality of Chinese women. (China: A New History, 1998, p. 173 - 5)

Not to mention the double-standard ethic of chastity for women which not only frequently demands from young widows but not from widowers life-long celibacy but also that, when raped, the woman commit suicide to protect her honour; and which confines women to air-tight subservience and faithfulness to their husband. Yet China remains the most obvious counter-example debunking the cultural feminist perception that the destruction of the planet is the external reflection of the oppression of women. Here is not the place for an exposition of the “cosmological mode” of imperial China, specialized since the Han dynasty as the “Mandate of Heaven.”1 Suffice it to point out that the microcosmo-macrocosmic concentricism of the cosmological mode, by seeing human society as embedded within the very structure of the cosmos, has led Chinese for two millennia to an obsession with humans’ being in harmony with nature. We mention here only in passing the emperor’s obligation to periodically perform the ritual toward Heaven in the Temple of Heaven as an expression of the worry that his rule might be out of harmony with the cosmos; and the ruling class’ theodicy perception of every natural catastrophe (such as the earthquake that killed nearly a million people during the Ming dynasty) as the warning from Heaven that human beings or rather the dynastic house is deviating from the moral, proper behaviour inscribed within the very structure of the cosmos. Such civilization in the cosmological mode would be the most resistant toward any industrial exploitation of the earth to the point of its destruction. The popular resistance toward the first baby steps of “modernization” which the reform-minded portion of the ruling class during the late Ching dynasty attempted to effect under the pressure from Western imperialism is the most obvious example. Ordinary peoples protested against the laying of railway tracks over their land because such blatant violation of the space (e.g. graves) of ancestral spirits by man-made machineries would cause imbalance within the forces of nature governed by the ancestors; when the telegraph wire system was first set up in the cities the rusty leaks from the wires were interpreted by ordinary people as the inauspicious “Heaven’s crying” because, once again, the imposition on nature of an alien industrial infrastructure was experienced by those of the cosmological mindset as disruptive of the harmonious self-working of the cosmos and causative of environmental disasters to come. Yet these peoples were the most oppressive of women in the world. How in the world does Mary Daly’s following description of the patriarchal mode (from Outercourse, p. 326) fit in here?

As I explained this in Pure Lust there is a disorder at the core of patriarchal consciousness which is engendered by phallocentric myths, ideologies, and institutions. This disorder implies a state of disconnection from Biophilic purposefulness, exemplified in such atrocities as the worldwide rape and massacre of women and of the Third World and the destruction of the planet itself. (Emphasis added.)

The stereotypical cultural feminist paradigm as manifested in Daly’s statement here is constructed, as said, within the limited horizon of Anglo-American women’s experience between 1700s and 1950s; since the Anglophonic world is male-dominated during this period and also subscribes to the Baconian-Cartesian-Newtonian Enlightenment classical capitalism paradigm that embodies an I-It attitude toward nature with which the formative capitalism starts to exploit and destroy the earth, the feminists assume that Enlightenment rationalism is paradigmatically “patriarchal” and earth-destroying, one reinforcing the other. A cursory peek outside the Anglophonic world during the 1800s, which they do not bother to take, would however immediately reveal that societies most oppressive of women, China and India, are operating in a cosmological mode that is precisely the opposite of any I-It attitude toward nature (while the Islamic society that is also most patriarchal operates in the mode of a transcendental religion that is still different from the Enlightenment paradigm), and that, across all major civilizations in the Old World during the 1700s and 1800s, the Anglophone society with its Newtonian worldview is in fact the least patriarchal, the least oppressive of women. (Even within the Western world itself, the Germany of Goethe is mildly patriarchal and yet subscribes to an earth-connecting holistic and organic Romanticism – from Herder through Hegel and all the way to Spengler and the Nazis – that is the first reactionary against Enlightenment rationalism – and which would in fact become the basis of cultural feminism of the first wave.) The correlation between gender relation and world-destruction actually seems to go in the opposite direction: the most intensified oppression of women correlates with a relatively mild exploitation of the earth2 and the mildest degree of patriarchal oppression, even the liberation of women such as in today’s consumerist world-order, with the greatest degree of the destruction of the earth. That some such supposedly educated modern as Daly could have uttered a statement so irrelevant to any common-sense understanding of world history that she must be out of touch with reality altogether attests to the mind-twisting ability of first of all power and secondly of ressentiment; ideology produced by power and, sometimes by its own internal mechanism, closing in upon itself without reference to reality is peculiarly a modern phenomenon. The same cosmological mode – which in the matter of gender in the Chinese case shows up as the yin-yang binary cosmic forces manifesting in the human sphere as the active male and passive female, this yin-yang binary itself being just the Chinese specialization of an universal experience of pre-modern humanity appearing, for example, in Classical Greece in Anaximenes’ densification and rarefaction of air or in Parmenides’ light-fire and night-heavy – that prompts people to fear imposing on and disrupting the order of nature also motivates them to assign, even through force, activity-power to men and passivity-domesticity to women (the “oppression of women”). In the case of Chinese footbinding in which this yin-yang binary reaches its most extreme expression, the experiential motivator seems to be the ossification and even pathologization of the binary experience of the cosmological mode when this mode reaches a stagnant equilibrium and cannot outgrow itself toward the next stage as the West has been continuously doing – like the whirlpool one sees when flushing the toilet that sucks itself in (this also explains why society’s demand of chastity from women intensifies during Ming dynasty and reaches cultic status during Ching; see "Topics in Pre-Modern Chinese History," Ch. 11: Women and Men in Society); while the material motivator (the historical Vernunft if one will) is the saturation of the agrarian economy that has also reached equilibrium and cannot evolve toward the next mode of production: “the paradox of growth without development,” in Fairbank’s words. Hence the two observations that Fairbank made when in Beijing in the early 1930s, that “manpower was so abundant and cheap that our easiest transportation was by ricksha with an intelligent human horse between the shafts” and that “all women of middle age or over had bound feet” (p. 173), are in fact intimately related, as he notes: “Yet footbinding darkened the lives of most Chinese women for several centuries, with social and psychic repercussions that call for historical appraisal. Most obvious was the economic loss through the impairment of farm women’s muscle power and capacity for labor” (ibid.; emphasis added). Perhaps Fairbank should have noted that, without reaching the next stage of mode of production, i.e. industrialization, which requires mass-mobilization, the saturated agrarian economy would have no interest in “liberating” women and in fact would have every interest in enforcing their artificial passivity, domesticity, and extreme specialization in reproduction.

After the preliminary dismissal of the feminist “understanding” of patriarchy or male-domination, we can begin our authentic understanding of its emergence in the sphere of the Eastern Ecumene, in order to continue our narrative of the origin of women’s oppression and examine how classical patriarchies could have emerged from a primordial male-predominance already implicit in tribal organization. The more sober-minded feminist historians Anderson and Zinsser have in fact approximately perceived the origin of the classical patriarchal mode when they say:

The most likely reason for female subordination is the development of intergroup competition and warfare, usually as a response to stressful ecological and social circumstances. This can account for the subordination of women in Greek, Roman, and Hebrew writings, because all these cultures were warrior cultures. (A History of Their Own, p. 5)

But, as said, intergroup competition is in fact embedded in the larger phenomenon of the formation of an interaction sphere which accounts for the rise of “civilization” itself, and warfare is only one facet of this intergroup competition, the other being trade. We shall see below that, as the formation of group alliances and kinship systems on the basis of the sexual division of labour which is itself based on the hunting of meat is responsible for the primordial male-predominance in the first tribal societies of Homo sapiens sapiens in Africa, the next stage, the extreme subordination of women characteristic of the classical patriarchy in China (but all across Asia as well), emerges as a function of the saturation of the interaction sphere all across the northern China plain during the late Neolithic (Lung-Shan) period. Both the primordial male-predominance among tribes and the total subordination of women among classical civilizations are then finally the functions of supraorganismic formation, its first and second phase respectively, while the liberation of women constitutes its third phase.

The concept of the Interaction Sphere, the formation of state, and the origin of classical patriarchy and noosphere consumption

Kwang-Chih Chang writes, “State, civilization, and city are not only concurrent in their initial occurrence but also, in all likelihood, interrelated in the causes for their occurrence” (Shang Civilization, 1980, p. 364). But patriarchy (of the classical style), or extreme male-domination, is also part of this package of state, civilization, and urbanism. How to define “civilization”? “[T]o most of us… civilization is a style, a quality, that is most characteristically represented by such objects of material culture in the archaeological record as monumental architecture and religious art. To put it bluntly, these are objects that are remote from daily use or from subsistence needs, or objects that are wasteful from a utilitarian point of view. When we see an ancient society willing and able to devote considerable wealth for seemingly useless tasks, we would admire its people and call them civilized. The more wasteful they are, the greater their civilization looms in our eyes” (ibid.). The utilitarian point of view is that of our “natural” digestive tract (stomach and intestine), evidently. Namely, what is utilitarian is that which does not too much go beyond the purpose of the maintenance of the biospheric dissipative structure (the cellular or multicellular organism) as it is. What is “wasteful” or “useless” refers then to that which the mind consumes for its own sake, those sensuous images aesthetically pleasing to the mind, such as art: noosphere consumption. At this stage (of intraworld religiosity) when the mind is not yet degenerate but fully functional, or rather about to become fully functional, the meaning of “religious art,” unlike that of contemporary consumer products, is not wholly exhausted by its giving the mind a (ephemeral) pleasurable sensation of consumption and defecation, but contains within itself the potential of pointing toward the ultimate truth of the universe and existence which will unfold itself fully during the blooming of salvational religiosity all around the Old World in the Axial Time (the spiritual meaning of life). Primitive humanity is that compactness where the material and the spiritual meaning of life have not yet bifurcated. But in this thermodynamic interpretation of history we are only concerned with the first, dissipative aspect. However, to note the linkage between extreme male-domination and the appearance of “civilization” and to define “civilization” by the blossoming of noosphere consumption is also to note, perhaps rather surprisingly, the connection between that extreme male-domination and this noosphere consumption. Chang continues:

Looked at this way, it is obvious that civilization is possible only with an abundant surplus of wealth within the society that produced it. It must be noted, however, that no surplus can come about naturally with advanced technology, because the subsistence threshold [the threshold at which the biospheric dissipation of the masses passes into the noospheric dissipation of the aristocrats, we can say] is always arbitrarily defined. A surplus is a man-made portion of wealth, arbitrarily imposed upon the society as a result of the reshuffling of its resources and its wealth. Such a reshuffling concentrates society’s wealth in the hands of a small segment of the society [i.e. the minority of male elite], giving them both the capability and the necessity to create the wasteful hallmarks of the so-called civilizations [to bring into being, in other words, their noospheric consumption]. Such resource reshuffling [and so noosphere consumption] is enabled by at least three sets of societal dichotomies or societal opposites. I would refer to civilization [and therefore classical patriarchy!], as archaeologically recognized, as the cultural manifestation of these contrastive pairs of societal opposites: class-class, urban-nonurban, and state-state [all of which then accompany classical male-domination]. In other words, economic stratification, urbanization, and interstate relations are three of civilization’s necessary societal determinants.

Truistic explanations suffice. Economic stratification enables the concentration of resources within the state [represented by the elite males], and urbanization is the mechanism whereby the state accomplishes that concentration within regional economic universes. Then interstate interaction in the form of warfare and trade makes possible a higher degree of flow of both resources and information which further widens the systemic sphere of the economy and facilitates the concentration of resources within the state (p. 365 – 6).

Economic stratification and urbanization in fact depend on interstate relations. This is where the concept of “Interaction Sphere” comes in. Although Chang here specifically refers to the case of Shang dynasty, he is credited with adopting the concept of the interaction sphere from the study in the formation of state or civilization in Mesoamerica, and applying it to the Chinese sphere, of the late Yang-Shao phase, to explain the appearance of warring chiefdoms during the Lung-Shan phase which prepares the formation of the first Chinese states (the first three “dynasties”) and so “Chinese civilization” itself, or, in our concern, Chinese patriarchy.

We can further generalize from this to produce what I will immodestly call laws of ancient civilizational development. First, early civilizations came about only with a political situation in which more than a single state is involved. At least two states must be involved, more likely in excess of two. There can be no civilization in a single state surrounded by barbarians. As Henry Wright has pointed out, “[Complex chiefdoms] may exist on favored islands, but they do not seem to develop into states until they are drawn into a larger system. Our concern is with networks of chiefdoms regulated by warfare and alliance” and “[states], like chiefdoms, usually exist in networks of states. Among simpler states these networks seem to be regulated by competition and alliance, as was briefly noted for chiefdoms” [“Recent Research on the Origin of the State.” Annual Review of Anthropology 6 (1977): 379 – 397.] (p. 366).3

Barbara Price has presented a “cluster-interaction model” to analyze the similar situation in the Mesoamerican context of state-formation: “Within the cluster, similar processes of cause and effect are operating to produce similar, parallel or convergent effects in each member: there is thus a basic similarity in adaptive process. [Hence in George Orwell’s 1984 the three mutually warring empires, although starting out from different ideological progressivisms, communistic or fascist or whatever, through their mutual military competition eventually become exactly alike one with another.] This similarity is enhanced by the fact that cluster components are in regular, at least, sporadic, interaction with each other. Such interaction takes two principal forms – exchange and competition/warfare – which disseminate innovations and accelerate the overall processes of cultural evolution.” (“Shifts in Production and Organization: A Cluster-Interaction Model,” Current Anthropol.. 18 [1977], 210; cited by Chang, Archaeology of Ancient China, 4th ed., p. 244.) Yoffee, as noted, uses the same concept of interaction sphere to define the “horizon” of the later Neolithic phase of Mesopotamia on the basis of which the later Mesopotamian civilizations emerged in roughly the same manner as in China. As Yoffee explains the concept in its original, tribal context:

The interaction sphere concept, as formulated by Caldwell, describes the condition in which those otherwise locally “autonomous” societies were also connected on a regional basis – that is, local social systems could be identified by distinctive settlement patterns in specific ecological or geographic circumstances, the practice of appropriate subsistence techniques, and the maintenance and reproduction of historically determined cultural ways and associated material culture. Nevertheless, the circulation of certain goods “bounded” these local systems within a large, regional or super-regional areas. In order to perpetuate the flow of these goods, furthermore, a common code of values and beliefs, manifested in a shared corpus of symbols, was invented to facilitate the social interaction needed to exchange goods. This common code, if not conceived by elites, soon became controlled by them. [The basis of classical patriarchy: the minority of male elite that controls the “interactions” of the interaction sphere and accumulates for itself the material basis for noospheric consumption.] For Caldwell, thus, the formation of an interaction sphere had evolutionary implications: it connected distinct peoples above the local ties of kinship; it promoted the adoption of innovations and ideas among different people; and it increased the status of local elites and so formed the foundation from which more stratified societies [thus, classical patriarchy] could emerge… (Yoffee, ibid.)

The economic and political stratification necessary for the production of the signs of “civilization” (noospheric consumption and extreme-male domination) are thus obtained. Chang then notes

In the Chinese situation… the various states – Hsia, Shang, and Chou, and others – occupied different territories in North and Central China, each characterized by certain distinctive resources. It has been further noted that the Shang-period oracle records suggest that the Shang’s principal interactions were with other states of comparable civilizational level. The economic interacting relationship among three – or more – states of comparable levels of development would enable a degree of circulation of raw material and products North and Central China-wide that would not have been possible within single states or between a state and more primitive societies. Such circulation of goods would provide favorable conditions for the concentration of wealth and for the production of surpluses within each of the interacting states. In addition, threat of external violence would tend to promote internal integration, or at least such claims have been a favorite political technique throughout human history… [Hence the famous dictum in 1984 that war is not fought for the sake of winning, but for the sake of keeping the people together, i.e. loyal to the state.] The competition among the states and any national consciousness that may be formed within each of the states in the course of long centuries and millennia must have been one of the major stabilizing factors within each of the states. (Shang Civilization, p. 366 – 7.)

The effect of homogenization, in terms of culture and organizational or political system, produced on each of the societal units by the emergence among them of such network of the circulation of goods through trade and alliance and competition in war accounts for what archaeologists have referred to as “horizon” or “horizon style” (e.g. similar styles of pottery or bronze vessels across a large area; Archaeology of Ancient China, p. 242). (Again, as Yoffee summarizes, “An interaction sphere… is a useful term in prehistory since it implies that certain material features found over a large area reflect a set of cultural relations that transcend localized nests of institutions and distinct peoples embedded within it…” Ibid., p. 258.) But “an interaction sphere is not the interaction of cultures as behavioral units. It is in fact the interaction (contact, exchange of information and goods, and conflict) among communities in a vast hierarchy of interaction levels”: “ecological, exploitory, marriage, political, military, religious, and stylistic” (Chang, p. 243).4 Chang continues:

The second law-like statement one can make is that the more uneven or inequitable the resource reshuffling within the state [i.e. the greater the “power” held by the elite males], the greater the hallmarks of civilization that will be produced [the more advanced the noosphere consumption; and the greater the subordination of women in general within each class]. And vice versa. This principle affords us the ability to predict the degree of economic stratification and complexity of regional economic system on the basis of the manifestations of civilization of that society. The higher that degree is in the archaeological manifestation we encounter, the more wastefully sophisticated or the less utilitarian [but more noospheric] it is from the point of view of subsistence needs. One look at King Tut’s tomb, for example, without knowing anything about ancient Egypt, and we can predict that we are seeing an extremely stratified society, with an efficiently run and regionally differentiated economic universe and with fierce interstate or interpolity competition. There is no question that it is great art, but neither is there any question that it was purchased at an extreme human cost (Shang Civilization, p. 367).

The motor of an interaction sphere, today (the global market) as back then, is noosphere consumption. Today global trade is that of consumer products (although, of course, of food as well). But back then the noosphere consumption driving the Chinese Interaction Sphere was particularly related to the complexification of shamanism, and the origin of classical patriarchy is to be sought within this complexification of shamanism and this formation of noosphere consumption of the elite male minority (another way of referring to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a ruling minority) made possible within the interaction sphere. This we shall see next.


1. Concept first adopted from Eric Voegelin in Israel and Revelation.

2. The mild male-predominance of hunter-gatherer societies are in fact correlative with the least ecological destruction. A slight amount of environmental destruction exists in China, for instance, that however would never rise to the level of global ecological crisis. The building of the Forbidden City during the middle of the Ming dynasty, for example, caused a certain amount of deforestation in the southernmost province. But this could only be a local problem.

3. “The term interaction sphere entered archaeological literature in 1964 in J. R. Caldwell’s description of the Hopewell interaction sphere of eastern North America. For Caldwell, the specific problem was how to describe nominally distinct Middle Woodland assemblages (ca. 250 B.C. – A.D. 250) that also possessed significant similarities in the material residues of mortuary practices. He invented the term interaction sphere to denote that there were social, ideological, and trade connections among populations that shared thereby a restricted corpus of material culture – in the Hopewell case of pipes, figurines, copper-axes – namely, those objects associated with the internment of the honored dead. Struever and Houart (1972) observed that such characteristic Hopewell items not only reflected membership in a ‘burial cult,’ but also denoted the location of ‘transaction centers’ through which the goods moved intraregionally.” Norman Yoffee, “Mesopotamian Interaction Spheres,” in N. Yoffee and J. J. Clark ed. Early Stages in the Evolution of Mesopotamian Civilization: Soviet Excavations in Northern Iraq (The University of Arizona Press, Tucson and London), p. 257.

4. Yoffee warns, however, not to confuse “interaction sphere” with the “world-system” of Wallerstein or with similar ideas such as the “West Asian world-system” of P. L. Kohl. “World-systems are by definition so geographically enormous that the core institutions that differentiate one society from another cannot be determined by contacts effected through long-distance trade. An interaction sphere, by contrast, refers exactly to the systematic, consistent, and normative set of activities that link people in such a way that a significant part of their identities are defined by such interactions.” (Yoffee, ibid., p. 258.) In the late nineteenth century, for example, Europe was the interaction sphere for the European powers, while their colonization frenzy established a world-system in which virtually all non-European peoples and nations were caught but by which they were not entirely determined in their respective identity. But today’s global community is in effect an interaction sphere and not just a world-system: the political, economic, and cultural modes of Japan, China, U.S., European and other southeast Asian countries scarcely differ from one another in significant ways.

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